The foreign material that collects on your pet's teeth is composed of mineral salts, organic matter such as food particles, and bacteria. In early stages of accumulation, the material is soft and is called plaque. If this plaque is not removed, it hardens and adheres to the teeth and is then called dental calculus or tartar. The gums form the first line of defense in the mouth against the effects of plaque and tartar. If tartar is not periodically removed, its continual accumulation causes inflammation of the gums, or gingivitis. Gingivitis is a progressive disease, and in the early stages, a slight reddening of the gum line (where the gums meet the teeth) is the only sign. As gingivitis progresses, the gums thicken, bad breath develops, and sores may appear in the mouth. Untreated gingivitis frequently progresses to periodontal disease, which is the breakdown of the structures that hold the teeth firmly in the jaw.
If periodontal disease continues unchecked, the teeth eventually loosen and fall out. Cats get a specific form of periodontal disease called external root resorption. The cause of this disease is unknown. The top or crown of the tooth starts to erode underneath the gum line, and erosion eventually reaches the pulp chamber. Since the nerve of the tooth is contained in the pulp chamber, these lesions can cause severe pain and behavioral changes, as well as gum overgrowth. In time, the top of the tooth weakens and breaks off leaving the roots embedded in the bone under the gums, where they remain a constant source of infection and pain. The tooth can be saved only if treated early in the course of disease. Untreated gingivitis may develop into a severe form of gingivitis called lymphocytic plasmacytic gingivitis. Affected animals have bright red gums that are severely painful and may bleed. Difficulty eating is characteristic of this condition. There is no cure, but there are treatment alternatives which may help to control the disease. Prevention Hard or coarse foods (e.g., kibble dog food) should be a regular part of your pet's diet and will help prevent accumulation of tartar. Providing rawhide, hard rubber chew toys, and hard treat foods will also prevent tartar build-up. Brush your pet's teeth daily using a regular, soft, child's toothbrush. Abrasive dental pads, obtained from your veterinarian, are not as effective, but are an acceptable alternative if brushing is not possible. Your veterinarian can provide a special enzymatic toothpaste developed for the teeth of cats and dogs, but baking soda mixed with water can also be used.
In addition to home care, annual cleaning and examination is the most effective way to ensure good dental health for your pet. Treatment Treatment of gingivitis and periodontal disease begins with thorough cleaning of the teeth by your veterinarian. The animal is put under general anesthesia, because a dog or cat will not allow adequate examination of its mouth and teeth when it is awake. Complete cleaning of all tooth surfaces and thorough examination of the mouth enables the veterinarian to determine if extractions or other treatments are necessary. Regular, at-home and professional dental care are necessary to keep gingivitis and periodontal disease under control. Notify your veterinarian if any of the following occur: Your pet has bad breath that persists despite regular teeth cleaning.
Your pet has visible accumulation of tartar. Your pet's gums bleed. Your pet has sores on its gums or loose teeth. Your pet refuses to eat or has discomfort when chewing.